WASHINGTON -- Toyota Motor Corp. disregarded warnings in 2006 from North American chief Jim Press that the safety of the company’s vehicles was slipping and that its problems with U.S. regulators were growing, the Senate Commerce Committee chairman said today.
“Toyota had plenty of warning signs that something was changing,” Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., said at a hearing today. “But it doesn’t seem like this message was heard in Japan.”
Rockefeller cited a briefing that Press gave to Toyota headquarters in September 2006 in asking Toyota executives if they planned to delegate more authority over the safety of U.S. cars to its North American managers.
The senator also noted that a similar message was delivered to Toyota headquarters more than a year later by Toyota Motor North America vice president Chris Tinto.
“We have a less defensible product,” Tinto said in his January 2008 briefing, according to a copy of his presentation released by the committee.
Toyota Motor North America President Yoshimi Inaba, who is Press’s successor, responded to Rockefeller’s questions today by reiterating that the company was forming a new committee for global quality with an American representative.
That committee, to be headed by Toyota Motor Corp. President Akio Toyoda, “will thoroughly review our operations and make changes to ensure problems of this magnitude to not happen again.”
Inaba said he was not familiar with the Press briefing at Toyota headquarters.
At his 2006 briefing, Press displayed graphs showing that the number of Toyota vehicles recalled had increased sharply from 2003 to 2005 while the number for the Detroit 3, Honda and Nissan had fallen, a copy of his presentation released by the Senate panel shows.
Press also showed that the number of federal investigations of Toyota vehicles for safety defects had nearly doubled during that period, according to his presentation.
“As more of our customers experience recalls, customer loyalty will suffer,” Press said, according to his prepared notes.
Press worked for Toyota for 36 years before becoming co-president of the former Chrysler LLC in September 2007. He left Chrysler at the end of last year.